I’ve just had the privilege of taking high tea with the Queen and I’m pleased to report that she was very happy and smiling.
With a special makeover, Her Maj was looking sparkling despite the dull December weather shrouding Southampton.
OK, I own up. I hadn’t been granted a private pre-Christmas audience with the Monarch to discuss her love of cruising at Buckingham Palace.
But it seemed to me like the next best thing – being served tea in china cups accompanied by delicate cakes and hand cut sandwiches on board Cunard’s newly spruced up flagship Queen Mary 2.
The Queen was there in spirit as well as a specially-commissioned oil painting of HRH was unveiled to mark the ship’s extensive refurbishment.
Created by portrait painter Gail Graham, the canvas painting depicts Her Majesty during her final visit to QM2 predecessor QE2 in Southampton in 2008 – and very smiley she looks too.
The painting has now taken pride of place in the grand lobby of QM2, a fitting tribute to the Queen who named the vessel in much pomp and ceremony back in 2004.
As QM2 prepares for its eighth birthday in January, Cunard has made a “substantial investment” in refreshing the world’s largest ocean liner.
Everything on board during my visit last week had the kind of clean smell I tend to associate with when sitting in a new car. The carpets are so new you feel your feet sinking into them while walking around and QM2’s 1,310 cabins have taken on a new life with new furniture, curtains, carpeting, bedspreads and flat screen TVs.
My whistle-stop tour before the ship set off on a four-night long weekend festive sailing to Northern Europe meant I wasn’t able to see work undertaken in the top suites on board.
However, if my brief encounter with one of the balcony cabins is anything to go by, the objective of refreshing the accommodation has more than successfully been achieved with a light and airy feel.
While Cunard is anxious to maintain a traditional cruise experience, it is not immune from the influences of the 21st century and as such has introduced Apple computers in its internet centre to complement the Apple store on board.
A fabulous Christmas tree has taken pride of place in the main atrium area, further enhancing the new look, which has seen the refurbishment of six public rooms, the spa and the Queen and Princess Grill restaurants.
Among the most impressive aspects of the 12-day refurbishment, involving design company Tillberg which was involved in the original concept work on QM2, is the conversion of the popular Golden Lion pub.
The space has been completely gutted and redesigned with new seating and comfortable booths replacing the dance floor. Cunard is aiming to create a cross between a traditional British pub and an American country club with the venue which includes new plasma screen TVs and a second dart board – although I’m not sure I’d want to chance being on the oche with darts flying around during rough seas.
I also adored the white leather furnishings in the forward-facing Commodore Club, a stunning location overlooking the ship’s bow.
By contrast, the garish Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar’s orange hew and bright swirly carpets made me think I’d had one too many glasses of bubbly even before stepping into the space.
More subdued is the casual Sir Samuel’s coffee house and wine bar which I’d reliably informed is THE place to be for a double espresso the morning after the night before.
Cunard is often unfairly not associated with being family-friendly given its appeal to passengers looking for a more traditional style of voyage. But that ignores the fact that QM2 in particular has impressive facilities for children. And the line has not forgotten the needs of its younger travellers by giving the Play Zone on board a complete overhaul with new soft play areas and upgraded electronic gaming consoles and entertainment.
An area I suspect doesn’t get optimum use by regular Cunarders – up to 70% of passengers are repeat ‘guests’ as the line likes to call them – is the gym. But, nonetheless, even this has been upgraded with new exercise equipment. The adjoining Canyon Ranch Spa has also been refurbished with a general upgrade of all the facilities.
Overall, the work carried out in a ship yard in Hamburg has given QM2 an even classier, contemporary look. Given that the ship is a complete one-off with no other cruise vessels matching it, the modernisation will I’m sure be welcome by new-comers and regulars alike.
During my sneak peak I was fortunate enough to meet up with Cunard president and managing director peter Shanks, who looked remarkable chipper given that he’d just flown in from a conference on the US west coast that morning to visit the ship for the portrait unveiling.
He declined to reveal how much had been spent on the make-over, other than to describe it as an exhaustive refit which had resulted in the company making significant changes to the vessel, yet still in keeping with its original design.
One of the most fascinating facts he was able to discuss was that more people, especially Americans, are using QM2 as a mode of transport to avoid the hassle of airports and flying transatlantic between the US and the UK.
The ship makes between 18 and 20 crossings of the North Atlantic a year – taking seven days each way – giving people a relaxed way of travelling when they have that extra time to spare.
Of course, one of the unique aspects of QM2 is that it has 16 kennels on board which Mr Shanks explained were filling up quickly for next year as more people travel with their pooches between Southampton and New York and vice versa.
So at least the corgis will be royally looked after the next time The Queen pays a visit to ‘her’ ship.